A week after Myanmar’s genocidal military overthrew its government, Putin violently cracked down on dissent, and the BBC released yet another harrowing report on the evils taking place inside China’s “re-education centres,” the squabbling West seems incapable to respond.
To my surprise, my high school graduation speaker – an impressive political somebody whose name I forget – spent much of his allotted time warning us of the impending danger of The East.
I suppose it was the context, as much as the content, that made the speech so surprising to me. It arrived, you see, not long after the inauguration of Donald Trump – who, in New York City at the time, was regarded as the second coming of the Führer – and very few dared offer an opinion remotely akin to any of his lie-ridden rhetoric. Additionally, true to its lower Manhattan location, my high school itself was a hub of progressive values. A large chunk of my four year experience was spent trying to dispel the myth of Western Exceptionalism – which was, I believed, a dated worldview, ideally confined to the 20th Century. Yet before me stood an intelligent man, supposedly on the ‘correct’ side of America’s binary political debate, forwarding that very belief. Instead of instructing us to work hard or follow our dreams or embrace adversity, the overarching directive as we stepped into the ‘real world,’ was to remain wary of the rising threat posed by China and Russia – the two nations which seemed to consist of this vague, immeasurable place described as The East.
Nearly four years on from that unfashionable speech, those threats are undeniable. Last week’s events do not serve as proof of this, but the latest in a long line of reminders. The same can be said for this week’s typically lacklustre, indecisive Western response: it is not proof of inadequate foreign policy, but yet another reminder, as well as a lesson in how we got here to begin with.
Myanmar’s fleeting flirtation with democracy is over. Increasingly, now, it is clear that it never really began. Because, while shocking, last week’s arrest of the region’s figurehead for freedom – the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize-winning laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi – and the restoration of junta control over the country, sounds as if it were never so much a case of if, but rather the culmination of an inevitable when.
Over the last decade, many have tried to celebrate Myanmar as the fairy-tale nation who peacefully transitioned from military regime to free democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi was this fairy-tale’s heroine. Her charisma, eloquence and unwavering resistance to an oppressive regime inspired millions, and launched her into elite company among freedom fighters of the 20th Century.
Since 2017, however, the international community have reigned in their applause for Myanmar and its civilian leader. When reports emerged of a violent military operation, aiming to drive the ethnic minority Rohingya Muslims out of the South Asian country, eyes and ears across the world turned to Suu Kyi to condemn the brutal offensive. Yet she remained silent. As evidence of severe human rights abuse became clear – including murder, rape, imprisonment and torture – still Suu Kyi refused to denounce what was now clearly a racially driven genocide. Instead, she began to offer feeble excuses. She even took it upon herself to lead Myanmar’s defence, when the nation was summoned to explain the crimes to the International Court of Justice in 2019.
I suppose we will never know how much Suu Kyi believed in the genocide, and how much the military forced her hand; regardless – rightfully, I hasten to add – it is a bloody chapter of her nation’s history from which she will never be able to distance herself. What we do now know for certain however, is that throughout Myanmar’s short-lived mirage of democracy, Suu Kyi and the civilian government remained beholden to the country’s military, specifically it’s senior general, Ming Aung Hlaing. For even Suu Kyi’s robust international support for the massacre was not enough to avoid an eventual coup d’état.
Reports indicate that this week’s coup was orchestrated chiefly to satisfy Hlaing’s own personal ambition. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy undoubtedly held far, far more influence than Hlaing would have liked, but still the military – or The Tatmadaw as they are known – maintained all the wieldable power, as demonstrated by the ease with which they retook control of the government last week. Which then begs the question why? One of the main reasons, it appears, is Hlaing’s long desire to be President.
Hlaing could not admit a motive such as greed, of course, and the coup was therefore launched under the pretence of responding to a fraudulent general election last November. An election that was, by all accounts (other than the Tatmadaw’s), free and fair, and one that Suu Kyi’s party won in an unsurprising landslide.
Using baseless claims of election fraud (in referendums from November 2020) to forward one’s personal agenda is a shameless tactic we’re unfortunately familiar with as of late. In the last month, the words ‘insurrection,’ ‘insurgency’ and ‘sedition’ have not been confined to the parts of the world we typically like to apply them to. The very behaviour was legitimised by a sitting President of the United States. Let me clear: I am not claiming that Donald Trump caused a coup in Myanmar – Hlaing and the Tatmadaw would have acted irrespective of what happened in America – but it would be foolish to think the Trump presidency has not eroded global faith in democracy. It would be naïve not to realise that state media, in repressive autocracies across the world, will have spun Trump’s ravings of election fraud, as ravings of a flawed democratic system. And as democracy supposedly falls, these regimes will propagate the superiority of their own tyranny instead.
I like to think it was the piercing blue eyes of Alexei Navalny that catapulted him, in Putin’s mind, from another domestic inconvenience, to dead-man walking. After two decades, during which the Russian leader has largely allowed the façade of a democratic opposition to exist – ensuring disagreement could be made known, but never loudly or significantly enough to challenge the almighty himself – something about Mr. Navalny evidently aggravated Vladimir Putin and his tender ego enough to issue the kill order. Those eyes seem as good a reason as any.
Navalny is, of course, more than a pretty face. Charismatic, tech-savvy and, perhaps most importantly, staunchly patriotic, he had galvanised bilateral support for his nationalist, anti-corruption agenda long before last summer’s attempt on his life. It was not until he was effectively martyred, however, that he became a household name across the globe; and it was not until he came back from the dead – blue eyes as vivid as ever – to return to his beloved homeland and topple his sworn arch-nemesis, that Alexei Navalny became a Russian hero.
Thousands have taken to the streets of Russia’s vast landscape, in protest of Navalny’s arrest upon re-arrival to the country. In a nation where the consequences of dissent range from losing your job to lengthy criminal prosecution, it’s been an immense show of force. Crucially, it’s been not just pro-Navalny, but anti-Putin. Many who have made their dissatisfaction known, supposedly, were not backers of Mr. Navalny beforehand, but find themselves in shock at the way he’s been treated, during a time of increased disenfranchisement in Putin.
World leaders have responded with a similar sentiment, yet lacking the same conviction. Both Navalny’s arrest, and the more recent footage of armoured Russian police beating, wrestling and arresting civilians in the snow, has drawn international condemnation. For now, condemnation is all it is – the same as it always is towards Putin’s Russia. Strong worded tweets and nebulous threats of economic measures mean little to the man if he can successfully quash a tangible challenge to his regime.
As the years of his reign have worn on, we have seen a Russian leader growing increasingly bold. Knowing the status quo western response: outward outrage but material indifference, he has pushed his luck. This is what gave him the confidence to order the assassination of Navalny in the first place. It’s what gave him the confidence for the 2014 annexation of Crimea; for the poisonings in Salisbury; for the bounties placed on the heads of American soldiers; for the military support for Bashar al-Assad; and for the organisation of vast interference campaigns in countless global elections over the last decade.
If, as it appears it might, the clock on Putin’s reign is indeed beginning to slowly tick down, history dictates he will only grow bolder. He knows he will not be able to retreat to his billion dollar mansion on the coast, nor likely able to bask in a retirement funded by the continuation of his own kleptocracy. After over two decades in power, he will not go gentle into that good night. If the insipid international response continues, this week’s crackdown will be only a preamble to whatever constitutes Putin’s eventual endgame.
It is difficult to still be shocked by the Chinese Communist Party, such is the immorality sewn into their every action. The contents of last week’s BBC report, however, on the systematic rape taking place inside Xinjiang’s concentration camps, was astonishing nonetheless. As is the case with every aspect of the Chinese state’s purge of Uighur Muslims, there was a bone-chilling discipline to the reported mass sexual assault. The barbarity is not spontaneous or impulsive, but rigorously structured and planned; it is not mindless violence, but deliberate, meticulous, state-orchestrated oppression.
Each time one of these heart-breaking stories from Xinjiang arrives, the official responses are the same. From the West: outrage, condemnation, and avowals to investigate further. From China: outrage, condemnation and sweeping denials of what it, too, likes to call ‘fake news.’ It would be easy to see it as an international impasse, but in actuality each report that is dismissed in this fashion resembles a large triumph for the Chinese Communist Party. Their persecution ploughs onward, unfettered, having only had to issue a statement effectively questioning the intelligence of Western journalists and politicians, while any meaningful resistance is delayed. So far, the CCP has been able to dismiss every report on Uyghur persecution in exactly this fashion.
The Trump presidency got few things right, both domestically and abroad, but it did offer – in 45’s typically candid and cavalier style – an unwavering condemnation what we all know to be an openly oppressive regime. After years of world leaders tiptoeing around this fact, Trump’s scathing, public attacks were a breath of fresh air in his otherwise toxically polluted tenure as Commander-in-Chief. Yet even his stance on China was for all the wrong reasons, and crucially alienated allies in the process. For with every promising pledge to decrease dependency on Chinese goods, came a defence of Putin or a photo-op with Kim Jong-Un, demonstrating his policy was never about tackling tyranny, but rather harvesting support from his base and projecting his America-first agenda.
This is crucial, for surely at the heart of any effective opposition to the crimes of the CCP lies unity amongst the West. With Trump’s every move dictated by self-interest, he made this impossible. Inaction and insipidness is one thing. Obstructing a solution is another.
The inaction and insipidness is how we got here, and why it now requires unity. Because after years of foreign policy – which ultimately seems to have constituted little more than mollification – our reliance on this land called the East has grown exponentially. Decades spent reaping the economic benefits, and turning a blind eye to the shadier actions of oppressors, has left the West with an utter dependency on their goods.
In China, companies find cheap labour – which poses ethical implications in itself – and therefore many choose to produce their goods there. Among the many commodities that bare the world-renowned Made in China tag, the vast majority of western medical products are now manufactured in China, meaning during the Covid-19 pandemic that reliance has become even greater.
With Russia, it is oil and money. Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, continues to plough ahead with a controversial new gas pipeline despite recent protest. Not only does this increase European reliance on Russian fuel, it fails to combat global reliance on natural gas. London, meanwhile, has long been a playground for post-Soviet wealth, and some of the capital’s most opulent homes continue to go to unknown, overseas buyers. Such is the self-made economic dependency, unity is required in softening the financial blow that punishing China and Russia would entail.
Presently, that unity seems a long way away. The United Kingdom and the European Union have never been more divided, both left with a sour taste following Brexit negotiations and a brief ‘vaccination war.’ Joe Biden’s United States, meanwhile, are, inevitably at this stage, somewhat of an unknown entity on the global stage. Though he seems set on reimplementing more traditional American foreign policy, following the four year adventure of Trump and Pompeo, it was this traditional approach that helped foster the aforementioned dependency.
I concede: it is of course possible, that as the rest of the world western world scrambles to re-establish relations with America post-Trump, a forceful anti-China/Russia stance forms some of the common ground needed to rekindle alliances. This would be an expensive and assured undertaking however; in the midst of a pandemic, from which the West looks set to be reeling from for the foreseeable future, it seems highly unlikely.
The sad part is there is no easy answer. There is no sensible solution to the immense conundrum of how to peacefully intervene when foreign nations violently disregard human rights, while, in a post-colonial world, preserving their right to self-determination. It is an impossibly blurred line that no modern western leader has successfully located. Such is the difficultly of the proposition, I doubt any single leader could. This does not mean they mustn’t try.